Contemplation: the Substance
I feel like I should apologize. Last week, I wasn’t totally feeling it, so I wrote about being funny when I wasn’t in a funny frame of mind. Sorry! This time, I’ll try for a greater degree of humour.
The fifth thing that I say to myself in the mirror, every time I affirm myself, is, “I am contemplative.” For me, that means a number of things. In this post, I’ll expound several of them. I am meditative; I think about things deeply; I have the energy to go for months on words of kindness, and I become so anxious when I have angry conversations that I lose hours of sleep. Because I’d like to talk about all those things, this post will be a bit longer than usual.
In his beautiful and endlessly dense poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth writes about “[seeing] into the life of things.” For me, that’s what contemplation is: that’s the substance of contemplation. I suppose that this is what Eastern philosophies and practitioners of cognitive-behavioural therapy would call “mindfulness”—becoming completely aware of what’s going on in my heart, and in my surroundings, and being at peace with both (all?) of those things.
Where does my contemplative or meditative aspect come from? I feel like it comes from my regular heart-knowledge of God’s presence, and from the empathy that I’ve both inherited from my parents and developped in my life and my work. When I am completely attuned to a situation, or a feeling, or a thought, I feel God’s joy pouring through me. For instance, once—about four years ago—I was running along the track at Hart House to the Tragically Hip’s song “Nautical Disaster,” which is from their very meditative and somber album Day for Night (1994). During the last verse, I discovered that I was running at top speed, almost sideways, along the upper part of the track. That was an astounding moment, because I realized that my body and mind really aren’t separable in their function. If my mind is on-side, my body can do great things; if my body is contented, my mind also benefits.
Similarly, when I encounter other people who are empathetic—many of whom are stronger empaths than I am—I feel God’s presence very strongly. Two examples spring to mind. First, one of my best friends is very talented at discerning, and reflecting on, others’ emotions. She and I sing hymns at a local nursing home on most Wednesday afternoons, and then we usually walk back to our church to have supper with friends. I know that I can depend on my friend to listen, whether I’m angry, happy, sad, or content: every time I am in her presence, I feel God’s joy, and I feel listened to. I know that whatever we talk about—her watching Sherlock with her roommates, her experiences at school or work, a cool movie that I’ve recently seen, my research, or the work we do together at church—we are both participating in the communion that God promises. I feel our communion through contemplation.
A second experience of constant and loving empathy: every time I go to the Tuesday-morning Communion service at Wycliffe College, one of the worship leaders—a beautiful woman with shockingly red hair, a big voice, and an even bigger heart—accosts me at the Peace of Christ. EVERY SINGLE TIME that she says, “The Peace of Christ be with you,” she gives me the best hug in the whole wide world. I love that moment, because in that moment, my friend and I share the depth of God’s ineffable and vital joy.
And sometimes, contemplation doesn’t involve other people at all. It can be as simple as my having half a glass of wine, or a full cup of tea, and turning on Led Zeppelin. Contemplation occurs whenever I am attuned to what God is doing with me or through me; it can be a passage of Scripture, a deep-pink sunset, or a powerful song in worship. Contemplation of the material or mystical blessings that God offers me, and offers all of us, is the substance of contemplation.
Problem is, that substance—that attention to detail—can go very quickly sideways…into the Shadow.
Contemplation: the Shadow
Just as I have the capacity to pay explicit attention to the details of my interactions with other people, to the details of Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks,” to a sunset or a good long run or bike-ride, I also have the ability to dwell on very small things that happen, or that people say, for hours on end. Just as I can be meditative, I can also be obsessive, and misdirected.
When I am angry or deeply frustrated with something, I can think about it for hours. And when I’m in that space, I actually lose a lot of sleep. “Why did she say that? Why did he turn away from me there? Why is the subway so friggin’ slow? What am I doing wrong there?” Sometimes this means that I stay up for forty-five minutes praying; sometimes it means that I toss and turn in my bed until three in the morning, because I find it difficult to let go of the wrong that I’ve done, or the wrong that’s been said or done to me.
At those moments, dark thoughts intrude on my consciousness, thoughts that disrupt my knowledge of God’s presence and taint my joy. “This is meaningless,” I think. “I wish things were different. I hate X; I hate doing this. What am I doing thinking like this?” In those moments, forgiveness is difficult, and I descend deeper into the Shadow.
Here’s a small example, because I’m still working through the large ones. I was friends with a gentle, funny girl in high school. We were very close until about halfway through my undergrad. She drifted away from me, and from some of our good friends from school, and eventually got married to a guy she`d met in university. She forgot to invite me to her wedding, and I felt hurt for years. While this wasn`t one of the anxiety-till-three-a.m. moments, I felt that my friend had wronged me. It took me a long time to swallow my pride, and to reconnect with her.
Just as mindfulness to God’s blessings can enliven me, and enrich both my life and the lives of others, my consistent attention to the wrongs that others have done me, to the small injustices that I encounter as a person with a disability, or to the wrongs that I’ve done, can destroy some of my ability to be grateful for God’s gifts. At times, I have been so wrapped up in my anger and despair that I’ve wanted to take my own life. The lowest points are the ones where I say to myself, “I’m a burden to everyone. It would be better if I weren’t here.” When I descend that far into the Shadow, I move very quickly from feeling pain to feeling nothing at all. That state becomes the opposite of mindfulness. Rather…it is mindlessness: it’s an incessant whispering madness, the absence of conscious thought. It’s frightening, to say the least.
In those moments, there is no God, and I do not hear God’s Voice. I become the Shadow. I can never stay there, but when I am in those places of darkness, I feel like they’ll never end.
Contemplation: the Synthesis
Thing is, my hyper-vigilant mind can never stay in the valley of the Shadow for long. The moment I have a good night’s sleep, I encounter greater hope. The best moments are the ones where I feel unalloyed bliss, like when I’ve danced with my friends, or at my twenty-seventh birthday party. The most important moments are the ones where I confront, and redirect, my anger and my pain at the things that I can’t control, the things that make up the Shadow.
The most important part of dealing with my rage—just as with any frustrating situation—is giving things TIME. I claim that I am patient (that post is coming up soon), but I have been socialized in many ways to be driven and productive. I don’t want to wait for good things when I’m depressed! When I’m in the Shadow, I want a quick fix, and I want it now.
Not gonna happen, right? But there are some solutions, however temporary they may be.
First, I find that surrounding myself with positive people helps. When I am frustrated, the thing I need to do most is to help another person; when I can focus on something other than my pain, the object of my attention places my pain in perspective. No matter how frustrated I feel, I always experience a release when I can laugh at something small that a friend says, when I can do dishes with my housemates, when I play hide-and-seek with a child, or when I sing Steve Bell’s Sanctus with my friends at church.
Second, getting enough sleep is crucial when I am frustrated or burnt out. This sometimes requires that I not talk to people in the evenings; it usually demands a small amount of attention to my diet, because my sleep-cycle is related in ways that I’m still figuring out to my eating habits. Nonetheless, when I’ve had seven or more hours of sleep—and last night I had eight, a great blessing!—I feel energized, and more able to take on my frustrations.
Third, good music helps. This means U2, Sting, R.E.M., and INXS far more than it means Soundgarden, Muse, or Black Sabbath. No matter how wonderful the groove is on “Fell on Black Days” (and I’ve listened to that song a hundred times, and know its wonder), I know that it will exert a gravitational pull back into the valley of the Shadow.
Fourth—perhaps most significantly—I can reflect not only on God’s promises in the Bible (many of which I know like the back of my left hand), but on his explicit (and happily, often clear) communications with me. Some echo or whisper of God’s Voice, and my desire to listen to it, always brings me back into the Light. And I know that nothing can separate me—US!—from the love of Christ…and that one day, there will be no separation, because everyone who loves God, loves others, and loves Creation will be folded forever into God’s embrace.
And THAT, dear friends, is worth losing sleep over. Not that I have already been made perfect, of course, but I press on towards the goal that calls me—US—Heavenward in Christ Jesus. 🙂